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51 3 3.A New Deal for Agriculture, 1930   –1938 The Great Depression necessitated new farm policies. Otherwise, up to half of America’s farmers would have suffered bankruptcy (one-fourth did), and the overall depression, destructive as it was, would have been much more severe. Over eight years, during two presidential administrations and four Congresses, the federal government, responding to a large array of interest groups and competing policy alternatives, matured a complex body of laws and administrative agencies to gain what everyone hoped would be fair and stable prices for almost all major agricultural products. Details have changed through the years, but aspects of every policy option undertaken in the 1930s have endured until the present, providing the political constraints and opportunities that allowed American agriculture to remain the most productive, and food prices to remain the lowest as a percentage of total spending, in the world. The human costs of this transition were enormous. The new farm legislation extended the debates of the 1920s, with no completely new options either debated or accepted. Two presidents— Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt—were the final arbiters of this legislation, but more often than not, the details were thrashed out in the Congress. Hoover was much involved in the details of farm legislation and had a personal agenda for agricultural reform, one that mainly involved governmental support for cooperative marketing. He fought but often failed to achieve his goals, and at times he reluctantly accepted bills that did not reflect his values or meet his objectives. Perhaps more insistently than any president in history, he tried to shape agricultural 52 A Revolution Down on the Farm policy. Even though he lost many of his battles, Hoover’s detailed input into farm policy meant that the eventual farm program as implemented by 1938 had his imprint on it. Roosevelt was just as committed to the welfare of American farmers as Hoover. If anything, he had a deeper personal identification with their problems than did Hoover.What he did not have, and would never develop , was a coherent set of values and principles to guide his policy inputs. He was open to many alternatives, sometimes even contradictory ones. Thus, whereas Hoover tried to focus and constrain farm policy, emphatically rejecting many of the competing policy proposals of the 1920s, Roosevelt was, at one time or another, open to almost all strategies. For example, New Deal programs would include acreage or production controls , export bounties, cooperative support, food aid, monetary inflation, land retirement and limited resettlement of displaced farmers, subsidized commodity loans, marketing contracts, and relief and rehabilitation programs for the poorest farmers. First Fruits: Hoover’s Farm Board A new farm program began in 1929 with the Agricultural Marketing Act, by far the most significant legislation of that year. Its implementing agency was the Farm Board, the first of a long line of agricultural agencies with more than a dozen different names that tried to aid in the marketing of farm products.The Farm Board was originally supposed to use its $500 million revolving fund to create and integrate farm marketing cooperatives. The huge wheat crop in the summer of 1929 and the attendant decline in wheat prices, followed by the stock market crash in October, presaged a more general crash in the prices of several farm commodities in 1930. Although it was not clear at the time, the general economy, led by a volatile agricultural sector, was moving into the worst depression in American history. In 1930 Congress faced pressing demands for new policies to stabilize or raise farm prices.The new Farm Board had to use some of the seemingly minor provisions of the Agricultural Marketing Act to stabilize prices. Over the next three years, or until the summer of 1933, debates over farm policy raged as farm prices continued to fall.A series of crises, each worse than the one before, was part of a collapsing world economy, with the nadir for farmers coming in 1932 and early 1933. In the midst of this gloom, the beleaguered Farm Board did all it could to keep prices as high as possible for major farm commodities, and for short periods it 53 A New Deal for Agriculture, 1930–1938 was able to stabilize domestic prices above world levels. But it faced an impossible task and ended up spending nearly all its $500 million in a failed effort. In the process, it provided a rehearsal for several of the agricultural programs...


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